Ill Fares the Land

Tony Judt
The recent election of the Socialist François Hollande as President of France is the sole ray of light for the European Center-Left in a long, gradual story of decline. Socialist, Social Democratic, or Labour parties received an average of 33% of the vote in the 1950s in Western Europe, but this dropped to less than 27% in the 2000s. In the last few years they decisively lost elections in the UK, Greece, Spain, Italy, Germany, France, the Netherlands, and their former strongholds in Scandinavia, failing to gain electorally even after the crisis of finance capital in 2008.

This decline is all the more dramatic in comparison with the influence of social democracy in the first post-war generation. From about 1950 until the 1980s, the first world saw a general consensus around the ideas of the New Deal in the US, of John Maynard Keynes and the Beveridge Report and the Labour Party in the UK, and of the Social Democrats in continental Europe. Neither the Tory party in the UK, nor the Gaullists or Christian Democrats in France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Belgium, or the Netherlands challenged the essentials of the welfare state; the historic party of the Right in Sweden changed its name to the "Moderate Coalition Party" in 1969, signalling its accommodation after 37 years of government dominated by Social Democrats; and in the USA, the Republican President Richard M. Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency, asserted that "we are all Keynesians now," and backed legislation to provide a guaranteed basic income for the poor (which failed but led to the Earned Income Tax Credit). The third quarter of the 20th century seemed to be, as Tony Judt put it, "the Social Democratic moment."

One of Judt's last books, Ill Fares the Land, is essentially one long lament for the disappearance of the Social Democratic moment, and a plea for its revival in a new form. But what happened to the old form? In this and in an earlier book, Judt provided perceptive answers to that question.

One answer follows from the old Taoist principle of the failure of success. As Judt wrote: "For anyone born after 1945, the welfare state and its institutions were not a solution to earlier dilemmas: they were simply the normal conditions of life --- and more than a little dull. The baby boomers, entering university in the mid-60s, had only ever known a world of improving life chances, generous medical and educational services, optimistic prospects of upward social mobility and --- perhaps above all --- and indefinable but ubiquitous sense of security." Bathed in the security created by the Social Democratic consensus, as well as by the era's prosperity, the baby boomers were no more aware of it than a fish is aware of water.

They had other concerns.

    The goals of an earlier generation of reformers were no longer of interest to their successors. On the contrary, they were increasingly perceived as restrictions upon the self-expression and freedom of the individual. ...What united the '60s generation was not the interest of all, but the needs and rights of each. "Individualism" --- the assertion of every person's claim to maximized private freedom and the unrestrained liberty to express autonomous desires and have them respected and institutionalized by society at large --- became the left-wing watchword of the hour. Doing "your own thing," "letting it all hang out," "making love not war:" these are not inherently unappealing goals, but they are of their essence private objectives, not public goods. Unsurprisingly, they led to the widespread assertion that "the personal is political."

This zeitgeist is quite different from the one of shared public purpose that characterized social democracy. Moreover, from "the personal is political" it is not a very long step to the view, credited to the influential Tory leader Margaret Thatcher, that "there is no such thing as society." This sort of Individualism underlay the anti-statist appeal of Thatcher's Conservatives in the UK and of the Republicans in the USA, particularly its libertarian wing currently exemplified by Ron Paul. Here, this outlook even extended to a revived cult of the crank Ayn Rand, followers of which included Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve Board wizard who cheerfully presided over the dot-com bubble and the credit/housing bubble. In Europe, the parties of the Center-Right rarely moved as far in this direction as the Republicans have in the US, but their electoral victories nonetheless reflected a shift of public sentiment away from the earlier focus on the public realm.

§   §   §

There is a second source of the decline of the democratic Left, and one that is entirely different: it flows from events taking place east of the regions under discussion, and in which the democratic Left had little or no part, but by which its elan and its repute was damaged nonetheless. Judt told this part of the story in his encyclopedic and insightful history of both halves of Europe after 1945, Postwar (published by Penguin Books in 2005).

"Behind the long 'Social Democratic moment' in Western Europe there had lain not just pragmatic faith in the public sector, or allegiance to Keynesian economic principles, but a sense of the shape of the age that influenced and for many decades stifled even its would-be critics."

    This widely shared understanding of Europe's recent past blended the memory of the Depression, the struggle between Democracy and Fascism, the moral legitimacy of the welfare state and ... the expectation of social progress. It was the Master Narrative of the twentieth century; and when its core assumptions began to erode and crumble they took with them not just a handful of public-sector companies but a whole political culture and much else besides.

"If one were seeking a symbolic moment when this transformation was accomplished, a hinge on which post-war Europe's self-understanding turned, it came in Paris on December 28th 1973 with the first Western publication of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago. ...Intellectual critics of Communism had never been lacking; however their impact had for many decades been blunted by a widespread desire in Western Europe (and, as we have seen, in Eastern Europe through the 1960s) to find some silver lining, however dim, in the storm cloud of state socialism that had rolled across much of the continent since it first broke upon Russia in 1917. "Anti-Communism," whatever its real or imputed motives, suffered the grievous handicap of appearing to challenge the shape of History and Progress, to miss the "bigger picture," to deny the essential contiguity binding the democratic welfare state (however inadequate) to Communism's collectivist project (however tainted)."

    ...By 1973, however, that faith was under serious assault not just from critics but from events themselves. When The Gulag Archipelago was published in French, the Communist daily newspaper l'Humanité dismissed it, reminding readers that since "everyone" knows all about Stalin anyone rehashing all that could only be motivated by "anti-Sovietism." But the accusation of "anti-Sovietism" was losing its force. In the wake of the Soviet invasion of Prague and its repressive aftermath, and of reports filtering out of China about the Cultural Revolution, Solzhenitsyn's root and branch condemnation of the whole Communist project rang true --- even and perhaps especially to erstwhile sympathizers. Communism, it was becoming clear, had defiled and despoiled its radical heritage. And it was continuing to do so, as the genocide in Cambodia and the widely publicized trauma of the Vietnamese "boat people" would soon reveal.

"At this point the traditional 'progressive' insistence on treating attacks on Communism as implicit threats to all socially-ameliorative goals --- i.e., the claim that Communism, Socialism, Social Democracy, nationalization, central planning, and progressive social engineering were part of a common political project ---began to work against itself. If Lenin and his heirs had poisoned the well of social justice, the argument ran, we are all damaged. In the light of twentieth century history the state was beginning to look less like the solution than the problem, and not only or even primarily for economic reasons. What begins with centralized planning ends with centralized killing.

"...The failings of Marxism as a politics were one thing, which could always be excused under the category of misfortune or circumstance. But if Marxism were discredited as a Grand Narrative --- if neither reason nor necessity were at work in History --- then all Stalin's crimes, all the lives lost and the resources wasted in transforming societies under state direction, all the mistakes and failures of the twentieth century's radical experiments in introducing Utopia by diktat, ceased to be 'dialectically' explicable as false moves along a true path. They became instead just what their critics had always said they were: loss, waste, failure, and crime."

§   §   §

In the course of failing bloodily at all their significant internal goals, the Leninist regimes of Europe and Asia succeeded only in polluting the politics of the Left worldwide. The pollution was partly unavoidable, given the language and early history which the democratic Left and the police state Left shared. But the democratic Left only made this worse by generally confining its disapproval of Communist behaviour to sotto voce whispers. For example, after the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968, Hal Draper of the Young Peoples' Socialist League made a modest suggestion: he proposed that the Left organize demonstrations against this latest act of Soviet imperialism, in order to retain the democratic Left's credibility on human rights. Needless to say, there were no takers. As Judt observed, "the traditional 'progressive' insistence on treating attacks on Communism as implicit threats to all socially-ameliorative goals...began to work against itself."

§   §   §

What, to return to Judt's mournful Ill Fares the Land, is to be done? The answer, I am afraid, is that only time will heal this wound: the time it takes for the generation which knows about the results of Leninism to die off, which means approximately another twenty years.

This was foretold precisely long ago. After the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917, The elderly anarchist-syndicalist writer Pyotr Kropotkin took up the role of loyal opposition to the Bolsheviks, and wrote several letters to Lenin explaining exactly what was wrong. In one 1920 letter he wrote: "Even if the dictatorship of the party were an appropriate means to bring about a blow to the capitalist system (which I strongly doubt), it is nevertheless harmful for the creation of a new socialist system. What are necessary and needed are local institutions, local forces; but there are none, anywhere. Instead of this, wherever one turns there are people who have never known anything of real life, who are committing the gravest errors which have been paid for with thousands of lives and the ravaging of entire districts." [He was referring here to the Bolshevik commissars and Party committees which ran everything.] And in another letter, the same year, he wrote: "At present, it is the party committees, not the soviets, who rule in Russia. And their organization suffers from the defects of bureaucratic organization. To move away from the current disorder, Russia must return to the creative genius of local forces which as I see it, can be a factor in the creation of a new life. And the sooner that the necessity of this way is understood, the better. People will then be all the more likely to accept [new] social forms of life. If the present situation continues, the very word socialism will turn into a curse. This is what happened to the conception of equality in France for forty years after the rule of the Jacobins."

Since the dictatorship of the Party committees in Russia ended only in 1991, by Kropotkin's estimate the very word "socialism" will remain a curse until about 2031. On the other hand, People's North Korea, with its hypermilitarization and hereditary dictatorship by the Kim family, still exemplifies one form of state socialism; while in China and Vietnam today (and very soon in Cuba) Socialism is defined as just capitalism within a police state ruled by the Communist Party committees. So the word "socialism" may continue to be, if not exactly a curse, then at least problematic, until about 40 years after these illustrious examples have collapsed or changed, whenever that may come to pass.

--- Jon Gallant
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